Suncolor's Blog

Lost childhood of war torn Northern Uganda

Posted on: April 13, 2011


on the road to find out
by john otim

We left Kampala, capital of Uganda, soon after dawn on the road to find out. We were on a mission to recover the lost childhood. Uganda suffered a violent and horrible past. Nowhere was this truer than in Northern Uganda where a brutal war, if war it was, raged without let or hindrance for upwards of twenty years. In the rich farmlands, just when the harvests were due, tragedy struck.

Men armed with automatic weapons, some in uniform, arrived in the village. Cattle, goats and sheep were driven away. Crops in the fields were torched, homesteads were reduced to rubble. Men women and children were herded into makeshift camps that lacked all amenities. There they lived for years, ravaged by famine and disease. A way of life was gone. Business as-usual continued elsewhere in the country. In the camps a generation grew that knew nothing but war. A few years ago the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, visited the camps. When Egeland saw what had happened he called the situation the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.  James and I were headed there.

"on the road to find out"

on the road to find out

James and I had been to school together at King’s College Budo near Kampala with the best of the youth of Uganda. We came from all corners of the land. We arrived on merit and we created a fairyland universe. We and the school took great pride in what we achieved. The new country was proud of us seeing in us its own future. But the new El Dorado did not arrive. Looking back now it seems we lived our lives in a world that was not there. At the time Uganda was an independent State and a member of the United Nations but the school was white run. Management and faculty were white. So was the headmaster’s secretary, so was the school’s director of works.

"King's College Budo"

Kings College Budo

In the sanitized atmosphere of the postcolonial school we studied the American war of independence, we studied the French revolution, the two world wars, and of course Shakespeare. We enjoyed ourselves.  But the treachery, the violence and the upheavals we encountered in our lessons and on the pages of the history books, shocked us. Could men act like that? Was Lenin was Stalin was Hitler real? The legendary African Strongman was a shadowy figure in the distance. But within the space of a year our credulity would be tested to the limits. Macbeth sprang from the eternal lines of Shakespeare’s poesy and assumed material force. He drove in a motorcade on the streets of our city. He flooded the streets with his army; and they unleashed terrific violence and created a state of fear. But that was that. Worse was to come.

The evening before, we visited a popular Kampala resort. We thought to find there a face we might know who could give us some useful tips. We had been out of the country for too long. The place was filled with revelers but it had an undertone of tension. Men and women appeared stylized. Smiles and laughter was the hardest thing but drinks flowed. Presently we approached a group to see if someone would break from the mold but people just stared at us as though we were aliens. We approached a second group at the opposite end and met with no luck at all. . We left trusting in the Nigerian dictum – God dei. Meaning God is there.

"Chief's house"

here i spent my holidays

The next morning we were on our way, winding through dense city traffic on potholed roads, amidst exhaust fumes, morning smog, loud music when police escorts edged us out of the lane. We narrowly avoided an accident. James was relaxed at the wheel. I liked that in a driver especially on long distance. Presently he broke into a smile. You know what? All this will end. The slums will and the traffic will. It will be country all the way.

Ten kilometers out of town and traffic began to ease. Twenty more and we were the only ones on the road. The hillsides were green, sparkles in the morning sun. Here no hills were cropped. I remembered the towering magnificence of Old Kampala Hill where once we picnicked and played where now stands the Gaddafi Mosque – Gaddafi erecting a shrine for The Almighty.  In the years ahead Kampala landscapes were dug up and replaced by ugly structures. A sure sign, James said, of the absence of planning, evidence that people were surviving. When people do nothing but survive you get this kind of thing, short-term solutions that create long-term problems.

I studied the man now. He gunned the car. The old engine roared and flew. James had spent his years in exile teaching in America. I had spent mine teaching in Nigeria. America had shaped him differently. To his accomplishments as a scientist and a footballer James expanded and added new dimensions. He became a designer and builder of residential districts. He built his own house. He made his own furniture.  James was the kind of man you could throw into a desert wilderness and he would find a way to survive and to prosper. His Clemson home in the United States was a forest of books. Travelling with him now, listening to him talk and seeing his tool kits by the back seat I remembered Robinson Crusoe.

I too had changed and left behind the land of make-believe that I guessed still plagued our country and the people we encountered in Kampala last night. Nigeria with all its contradictions got me out of that mess. There was something about the Nigerian that told you I am real don’t mess with me. In Nigeria I was surrounded by smart people, go and get people. In the university whenever I doubted the course of action my colleagues were about to take, they would say “You no see”, “make you sit down there”. It was the invitation to get up and be part of the action. Where Nigeria includes Uganda excluded. The phrase “Federal character” enshrined in the constitution, made it obligatory for Federal and State supported institutions to reflect the diversity of the Nigerian population. You could not have a government department in which everybody came from the same tribe. The generals came all the tribes of the nation.

"James standing first from right"

James standing first from left

Now we were approaching Lwero, the lovely small town set on rolling hills. The kind of place you look at and say here I want to build me a university. Here I want to invite the youth of the world to frolic and to learn. But Lwero was a place whose name had become inseparable from our country’s history continuing brutality. But now as we drove through the land the brand new all brick cathedral of the Catholics rose up. A little while later the church of the Anglicans came in view, just as new just as magnificent. In Lwero you discovered that everything was new. The rubble of hostility was buried under the gloss of newness. Let the people get on with their lives. Get on with what!

"rebuilding life from zero"

rebuilding life from zero

On and on we drove, the lay of the land changed, so did the vegetation. We found ourselves running parallel with the River Nile as it pursued its eternal course. James who knew the location well said the river was a mere stone throw away. I imagined I heard its mighty roar. On the other side lay the object of our mission, the vast territory of Northern Uganda. We imagined we could see the blue hills of Payira and the mountain range of Otuke. For there come what may we planned to unearth layer by layer the lost world of childhood.  

"Koroto Rocks"

Koroto Rocks

From time to time we shot past the skeletal traffic on the road. We could not bear to allow any object even if it were brand new from the factories of Toyota or General Motors to stand between us and the lay of land. We delighted in everything and everything delighted us. A few drivers who thought themselves in smart state of the arts autos got mad at us. They could not bear the thought of our faithful oldie out gunning them. But the Nile seemed to draw us on. The forest grew exceedingly dense and magnificent. It was easy to lay back now and let your thoughts run to the beginning of times. In the beginning was the word. In the beginning was the big bang. It did not matter. Suddenly the river came at us, in a matter of seconds was upon us, in a roar of boiling surging foaming mass. It was the leap of an angry lion. Mercifully we were over and across the bridge in one big surge of the old motor. Welcome to Northern Uganda. The car music box played Bridge over troubled water. Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down.

The novelty of again entering the land where one first saw the light of dawn brought memories. I thought of songster Joyce Akpan singing the number we created together on the Ahmadu Bello University campus – In the first light of the dawn.  The next day we were en route to a place called Kalaki towards the old town of Soroti in Kuman land. In the fifties and sixties Kalaki was a big center of learning drawing students from a huge swath of the countryside. Over the years much smaller centers than Kalaki have grown into universities and colleges while Kalaki has shrank. James’ father began his teaching career at Kalaki. Here in the late forties James was born in a small house that still stood despite the violence. It and the old stone chapel were the only structures that survived. We longed to enter the old house but we could not. We were strangers in the land and the climate of suspicions was real! The thought occurred of Elvis Presley. Caught in a trap, can’t get out because I love you so much more.

"here James was born"

here James was born

The most vivid sign of decay as one approached Kalaki was in the condition of the eleven kilometer stretch of road that links the school or what remained of it to the brand new northern highway from Soroti to Lira. We had to navigate and negotiate our way inch by inch. It took us hours. So daunting was the challenge we took no photos. And so we approached at last Kalaki. It was a place I had not seen, but a place of which I had in the past heard much. Here as a young boy my father went to school and lived with a family of Baganda teachers from the rich and colorful kingdom down south. Here years later my mother began her teaching career. What confronted us now was a world that James could not recognize but James was glad at having made the reconnection to a past that though gone was still there.

On the third day as the town stirred we left our base in Lira. Lira was a town that refused to die. Five years after the massacre in which more than two hundred people were bludgeoned to death at the Barlonyo refugee camp the town was again in bloom Death came silently at dawn and caused a terrible stampede.

"death at Barlonyo refugee camp"

Barlonyo killings

We were on the Lira/Kampala road. We drove past Kamdini, the old colonial resort for chiefs and high officials of the colonial state. We made as if to cross the Nile again and confront again the guardian spirit of the river of which the ancestors spoke. We passed again through the dense vegetation of the Nile basin; always a place of awe. Just before we could cross the bridge we took a turn and hit the road that leads to Arua, Uganda’s northernmost city. We were headed for Anaka, the place where it all began. The landscape was splendid, it rose and fell and rose and fell; a panorama of lights and shadows. Finally Anaka loomed and I heard again the old familiar reverberations.

ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo
ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo

Drum beats throbbed, the arena shook, and voices rose in song. Ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubanga oketo. Do not delay. You will miss the Lord’s own delicacies. Do not delay. Wonders of creation rose in the mind. The dancers responded with a passion. The girls were as if they could fly and their faces were broad with smiles. Boys circled them. In swift subtle motions of the waist they made as if to claim at once their portion of the delicacies. Round and round they danced. Ka igal ikeng gin ma Lubnga oketo. The girls responded in like manner. Drum beats rose to crescendo. It was the larakaraka, Acholi courtship dance. Tourists hurrying back from nearby Murchison Game Resort crowded the arena on the spacious lawn by the chief’s house. They lit up the night with their filming. Dark clouds were gathering. Soon the storm broke.

"war shattered schoolroom"

war shattered classroom

By the end of the sixties Anaka was on its way. It was the gateway to a great game reserve comparable to Serengeti. It stood on the road to the Sudan. It had two secondary schools, a technical school, and a modern one hundred bed hospital. Now as we approached the school where I once studied, I saw nothing that resembled what I remembered what I knew. The orchards were gone. The enchanted groves and brooks of Agago where we kids loved to play were a shadow of what they once were. We drew near. A group of boys playing on the lawn saw us. They took cover and were gone. We were the guerrillas. We were the army. We were the enemy. Not in their action. Not in the appearance of the place was there anything that resembled the old Anaka I knew and loved where my family lived. As we drove away I realized that perhaps no one could ever come home again.

"author at ahmadu bello university"

author at ahmadu bello

John Otim
formerly of the Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria
 now with Suncolor Consultants in Kampala Uganda

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2 Responses to "Lost childhood of war torn Northern Uganda"

Bring back d Africa of old!

sure! am not so sure. fascinating as africa truly was long ago

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